Edward Snowden, live from Russia at ORGCon 2019

Weeknotes #9

Weeknotes

FaceAche

Been thinking about FaceApp, the app that’s been around for ages and transforms faces in a variety of ‘hilarious’ ways.

I already know what I’ll look like in 10 or 20 years: a sort of pasty version of Ned Flanders. But even so, I can understand the temptation to satisfy the curiosity of trying the app out, whatever the motivation. How well does the tech work? How realistic is it? Will we turn into our parents after all? I get it. I’ve used the cat filters in Hangouts and Snapchat and whatnot. They are fun!

And of course, pictures of us are, scrape-able. It’s hard to keep our images off the internet. Even my mum knows that – in 2016 she told someone she was ‘on Facebook’ even though she didn’t have an account. Her face was on there – that was enough for her. Although we laughed at the time, she was totally right! And if someone wanted to put her through FaceApp, they’d just need to find her picture on the service.

So the pictures themselves are kindof uninteresting, but what about the intent? What do our actions reveal about us? What does it mean to be a person who voluntarily uses FaceApp? Does it mean you’re suggestible? Likely to share? Is that information useful? Of course. But to whom? When? How? How much is that information worth?

It’s this kind of metadata that, combined with other seemingly insensitive bits of our digital footprints, can identify us and then be used for all kinds of mischief – even if the original data was anonymised (highlighted by this cheery 2018 paper by UCL & The Alan Turing Institute).

Levels of public literacy around this stuff are pretty low in society (celebrities and influencers in particular) which is one of the reasons I support the Open Rights Group. Primarily I follow their work to keep myself abreast of the issues, but I also support them to effectively educate and lobby our government to keep corporates in check – sensibly – on these issues, in order to protect our human rights. Coincidentally I went along to my first ORGCon last week and came away with quite a long reading list from the talks and debates.

We’re not creepy, honest (Screengrab of apple.com/uk/privacy, July ’19)

Apple in particular are making data security one of their key brand messages at the moment, realising that user data and metadata is at the same time one of their most valuable assets and their customers’ biggest concerns. But are their current mobile operating system APIs dealing with permissions in a sophisticated enough way? Apparently not. But I hope they are moving in the right direction.

For the next generation, whose entire lives will have been put online, sometimes by their parents, trying to control their digital footprint will be a near impossible challenge. FaceApp adds just another tiny vector to that. I’m really glad that the BBC has put together a simple kid-friendly guide to this stuff called Own It, although I must admit I’ve not noticed its promotion when I’ve been using other BBC services (which I do extensively).

Developing responsibly

In a timely development at this week’s Agile In The Ether, a monthly remote meet up for agile nerds, Emily Webber introduced a concept she’s been working on with doteveryone: consequence scanning. It’s a new event that sits in an agile cadence (e.g. within the fortnightly sprint cycle) and can be used by teams developing software to understand the positive and negative consequences of the things they are putting into the world. I look forward to putting it into practice sometime soon.

If initiatives like this become mainstream then at least accidentally well-intentioned tech could become less likely to be harnessed against us, so long as the players are not inherently of bad intent.

*

More squawking

Talking of bad intent, this summer there’s a nest of seagulls on the building opposite my house [METADATA!] and the birds are NEVER QUIET. They have even started swooping after people in the street. The nearest coast is miles away, but it apparently doesn’t matter – urban gull populations were up four fold according to research carried out in 2015.

After some basic research I am making owl masks to scare them away and to restore sleepfulness.

Blocking client work

Work-wise; a full week with Mozart this week, with a couple of other bits and bobs thrown in for fun. It was nice to focus almost exclusively for once –most of the time I’m context switching furiously (which will be the regular pattern again shortly).

Always be arranging

I put together two more choral arrangements this week which are in decent draft shape. Getting pretty quick with Avid’s music editor Sibelius now that I’ve done about 20 of ’em. Score editors have such a steep learning curve I’m not sure I could bear to switch.

Weeknotes #8

Weeknotes

Work is ramping up. First full day with Britten this week, learning about what’s needed and the lay of the land, before things start proper next week. Full week of Mozart coming up this week. Busy times. MBA work will be filling every gap in between.

I spent a little time arranging Rag n’ Bone man’s Human for SATB and body percussion for the upcoming Pink Singers season that starts in September. I’m enjoying exploring the crunchy blues chords, and my inner drama queen is relishing the unashamed gospel nods too, with a few 7 or 8-part chords making their presence known.

In gentler news, my courgette plants have taken over everything else in the garden (perhaps in hindsight planting one would have been enough). I have a growing pot of raspberries in the freezer that I hope to turn into ice cream. A restaurant we love, Great Queen Street, closed last week citing increasing rent. It’s the story of so many smaller venues, shops and restaurants – another future victory for corporate monoculture.

After a ton of travel earlier in the year, a few new travel plans are reaching fruition in September & October, so a lot of careful diary planning is in order to make everything work.

Weeknotes #7

London, Weeknotes

Long ones this week. Weekramble.

On Pride in London

Pride march days are ones in which I feel utterly able to be myself. I can hold my partner’s hand in public, dance around, and feel safe. Waves of endorphins sweep over me.

These feelings last! They spur me on to do a lot of the activism I do (at work and in my spare time). I’ve chased these feelings at prides in other cities including Reykjavik, Taipei, Mumbai and Sydney, each of which feels wildly different. I know pride marches aren’t for everybody (loud, crowded, asthma-triggering, exhausting things) but I love them.

I’ve attended the Pride in London parade for many of the years I’ve lived in this city. It’s a huge event of 30,000 participants and over 1m visitors, run almost entirely by volunteers and with a sizeable impact. But it’s come in for a lot of criticism in recent times, some of which is fair.

In 2012 the previous organisers were pilloried for its financial collapse. Although it’s difficult to analyse the financial affairs of Pride London and Pride in London productions (the companies behind the previous organisers), the most recent filed accounts by the new company behind Pride (London Community LGBT Pride CIC) suggest they are running a tight ship financially – managing income and costs to achieve 1-2% profit in both 2016 and 2017 (accounts here).

In 2018, the march was disrupted by anti-trans protesters, and Stonewall UK declined to march citing a lack of diversity – something the Pride in London organisers have taken on board and pledged to address in 2019 as a strategic priority (see impact report, p5) – we shall see. Stonewall are back in the fold this year, in time to mark the 50th anniversary of the riots.

This year, I’ve noticed three themes of criticism emerging already: size, cost, and what I’ll call ‘superficiality’. Obviously the three are interrelated but I’m separating them here to reflect on.

On size:

In its impact report from 2018, Pride states that it has prioritised increasing the number of groups represented, over increasing the number of places. In my experience as a member of the Pink Singers, this has resulted in the number of allocated wristbands being significantly less than the number that would like to participate. This seems to have happened to most groups. Whilst this is understandable, doing this without prior warning causes logistical issues but in some cases actual distress for those involved. Being denied the endorphin rush I waxed somewhat lyrically about in the first paragraph is particularly difficult for LGBT+ people who are more likely to suffer from poor mental health.

On cost:

Some groups have decided not to participate (e.g. Push The Button) complaining that fees for small businesses to march are prohibitive (in Manchester, it’s fees for attendees that raise eyebrows).

I think it’s fair that all groups pay to be part of the parade – even the non-profits. Part of feeling safe is not worrying about traffic running you down (Mumbai Pride was an interesting experience in this regard), and ensuring the event is appropriately secure and well run. Every group ought to make a some (however small) contribution to recognise that, and even charitable organisations can plan their activities such that they can cover these small costs.

And I agree that the robin hood principle should apply and the fee structure for marching groups at Pride in London could be reviewed such that marching fees explicitly place more of the financial burden of running the Pride event on larger companies’ shoulders. However, a huge £650,000 of Pride in London’s ~£1m income already comes from corporate sponsorship. So it could be argued that Pride are already making corporates subsidise community groups and small businesses (indeed, many think this has already been taken too far).

I also think the distinction between charitable organisations and small business that Pride currently has is fair and should be respected. Charities and community groups are meant to be non-profit. Charities have objects and publish income statements and impact statements as part of their annual return. They have to qualify and quantify the impact of the community work they do. Companies, on the other hand, have no such obligations to carry out community work (although many do for CSR reasons) and it is well within the gift of most organisations to figure out and plan for how to make £500 for this kind of event happen, especially ones that generate a profit to their shareholders.

On superficiality:

Harry Gay from the wonderful LGBTIQ Outside project highlighted that Pride in London had asked the group to make sure their bus of homeless pride participants was ‘visibly nice‘. To my mind, this is about as far away from the roots of the pride movement as you can get. You don’t have to be decked out to the nines to be proud, and Pride shouldn’t be enforcing this kind of behaviour.

How Pride can make change happen

Perhaps it is the failed financial legacy of the previous organisers, or perhaps the organisational culture, or just the sheer operational complexity of planning an event that quite literally shuts down the centre of a major city, that prevents Pride rapidly innovating to address the cost & size issues – e.g. moving the parade to a new route or increasing the length of time to grow numbers; changing the fee structure for participating groups, etc. Although Pride in London is about much more than parade day, I can see how challenging it must be to address these parade issues when this happens only annually.

But the idea that Pride should be all glitter and rainbows is dumb and exclusionary. It’s a protest, a visible reminder of the scale, breadth and diversity of a huge community.

One thing is for sure: all of these half-formed reflections make me want to better understand and get involved to help Pride in London figure out a way through them.

On two-way communication:

I hit my tolerance limit this week for communicating with people one-way. Wanna tell me what’s happening to you? Great. Fine. But ask how I am once in a while too.

In regular life and work:

Glastonbury was even more awesome than ever before, resulting in an even larger post-Glastonbury lurgy (it always happens – this week in the form of a giant throat infection). As a result, a quiet week, in which a potential new client Sibelius went on holiday for a few weeks, leaving an August gap that made me slightly anxious for a couple of days before it got rapidly filled by a new client Britten with a little bit of Mozart work intertwined [obviously all my clients aren’t dead composers]. All in all, it’s going to be a packed couple of months until early October when my final masters assignment is due.

I was invited to be a godparent (again) to a new human which is an incredible privilege and I’m looking forward to being a corrupting influence on baby Heston.

Baked my first sourdough loaf from a starter Luke gave me (which I have named Bob) and wow, it was delicious. Needed a longer second prove (ended up a little flat), but I am a bread-making convert. Cheap and tasty = the best.

Weeknotes #6

Weeknotes

Normally weeknotes are a Sunday morning activity, but this week it’s happening early because I’m trying to finish a bunch of work and about to go to Glastonbury.

This week’s mini-triumph (I think?) has been resurrecting my 8-year-old Macbook Pro. It succumbed to a well-known graphics defect (a flaw with the AMD GPU) and during its warranty life had three logic board replacements, free of charge from Apple, to resolve the issue. Now out of warranty, I’d assumed that when the issue recurred I would be unable to solve it.

Thanks to the cool kids at realMacMods, a lot of software patching, removing a resistor (!) from the logic board, and a little bit of feeling in the dark, the issue is resolved and my powerhouse computer is back up and running. The daft thing is this machine still feels faster than my 2017 Macbook Air which I use for dashing about, even if bits are hanging off it and it no longer can run a second screen.

Anyway: nerd victory: and better for the planet to keep old stuff working too.

Weeknotes #5

Weeknotes

A busy week split between client work and an assignment deadline this week, so short weeknotes.

Work

One of the things I’m reflecting on this week is knowing when to be hands-on vs hands-off in developing communities of practice at Triple Sharp. I coach individuals one-to-one with a well-defined structure and framework; but I also work with groups to help nurture company-based communities of practice – these help product teams to develop their craft and shape create the necessary organisational change to help with this.

There’s a moment where communities of practice become self-sustaining and don’t need me to drive the momentum. But judging that moment is hard. At the moment my approach is to do it earlier than I might need to, and watch and quietly coach where things might go slightly astray.

I need to ponder this further but in the meantime I might sound out individuals from client Mozart and see what consensus (if any) arises.

In other work news: am dealing with a couple of complex prospects for the autumn.

Life

Sunshine, exercise, my super-fast-growing courgettes, and a lot of visitors from afar are providing some smiles.

Oh and the new Tales of the City series on Netflix is GREAT.

Weeknotes #4

Weeknotes

Short weeknotes this week, in which June felt like January, essays were being finalised and plans for a busy summer of research and new clients were coming together.

A few things continue to get to me this week and I’m still pondering what to do about them:

  • Observing the unfolding leadership contest of the Conservative party is like watching a dreadful Etonion Inbetweeners movie
  • It’s not news when Trump tweets some faux-pinion (like last night, when he again called Sadiq Khan a ‘disaster’, citing Katie Hopkins as his evidence base. Predictably, this briefly topped the BBC News website. But this cannot be news. I wish the mainstream media would grow an flippin’ pancreas and not let their blood sugar spike based on any old regurgi-twaddle that comes out of that man’s mouth.

In more prosaic news, I switched to Todoist to manage my daily tasks about a month ago and now I can’t live without it. The raspberry bushes started fruiting in spite of the gloomy skies, and I’m squirrelling away the fruit that doesn’t end up in my mouth into the freezer for turning into ice cream.

The Pink Singers performed incredibly on Saturday night as usual, accompanied by the elegant Omphalos Voices from Perugia. I would love groups like these to be able to use their musical prowess to reach larger audiences and help tackle some of the awful polarisation in our society (which have led, it was reported this week, to a huge surge in homophobic hate crimes). Understanding the complex underlying reasons behind this rise is key to making sure all our flourishing LGBTQ organisations can effectively act to counter this kind of behaviour.

Weeknotes #3

Weeknotes

The week began with running a workshop that was regularly interrupted by the din of Trump’s helicoptercade (is that a word?). Three giant choppers streaking across the sky without regard. I suppose it’s easy to misinterpret the protesters as supporters from that high up, far away from the signs. A reminder to the more sane of us to get up close and personal with our critics (and friends) whenever we can.

A lot of self-directed work besides: re-reading about management research methodology, ethics, and planning to recruit some critical friends for my final MBA project, writing up some progress reports for live work.

Went to see Jonny Woo’s all-star Brexit cabaret which was pretty clever and featured music written by the lovely Richard Thomas. Turns out that making consistently laugh-out-loud comedy out of the Brexit situation is quite a challenge, though – the best response an artist can hope for is bittersweet puzzlement, I think, given the complex set of emotions this particular topic arouses. A short-lived belly-laugh, stifled by the suffocating horror of the reality of the political situation unfolding here in the UK.

This made me reflect on a song I adapted for the Barberfellas in April – a barbershop reworking of Erasure’s Love To Hate You featuring Theresa May dancing, Juncker, face masks – the whole bit. The audience response was earnest but a bit flat. We decided we’re going to shelve the song. A shame, given the work we put into it, but it was hard to get the complexity of Brexit across in just a few minutes through the lyrics I put together. Richard Thomas did, of course, a far better job than I in Woo’s cabaret, but nonetheless: suffered a similar audience fate I think.

Barberfellas perform Love To Hate EU at Amnesty International, April 2019. Pic: Liang Wee

Of course, art is not just for cheap laughs, though – and it’s testament to its quality that Woo & Thomas’ work has stayed with me all week and reignited the flame of ‘What am I doing to deepen the nuance of conversation on Brexit and improve political discourse in the UK?’. The answers to date are, pitifully, ‘I wrote this song!’ and ‘I signed that revoke petition’. This isn’t enough.

Perhaps we just need to continue sing the song, accept that nearly all art is political, and get the conversation started.

Also had the privilege to see Armistead Maupin at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern answering Q&A to coincide with the new Netflix series of Tales of the City. The stories in Tales are, of course, ridiculous, but the life Maupin breathes into his characters and the worlds he evokes are incredibly rich – I close my eyes and I’m in 70s or 80s (or beyond) San Francisco.  

On the roof garden: there is precisely one strawberry, the raspberries and blackberries are starting to gain some colour, the (late) tomatoes are growing, and rocket is starting to emerge. Bees have discovered the lavender and there are more birds starting to hang about.

Just dribbled tea on my t-shirt, which must mean it’s time for another.

Weeknotes #2

Weeknotes

This week was spent mostly in Trondheim, Norway with my barbershop group the Barberfellas. We were invited to perform with Kor Hen, Trondheim’s queer choir and they were the most gracious hosts, organising hikes, city tours, social events and so on. I also led a workshop on barbershop singing and surprised myself by how much I enjoyed doing that. Our joint gig was packed to the rafters with an incredibly warm audience of around 150 people.

Kor Hen’s leader is Gunnhild Hasunds, an accomplished musician and singer of impressive vocal range – a chilled Sunday morning listening to her SoundCloud is time well spent.

One of the highlights of Trondheim was a 12-mile walk around Bymarka, where the locals go for a quick weekend ski in winter. We stopped off for hot dogs sitting by a roaring fire (it was about 4°C) in one of the cabins. The views of the lakes, trees and fjords were very soothing. We also briefly visited Hell, but there wasn’t very much there aside from a train station and it was chillier than we’d expected.

Not too much work this week, but a little prep for what will be a busy one coming up. In study world, met up with my MBA buddies and chatted in the sunshine about our next assignment which is due in a little over two weeks.

A back-burner project finally came to fruition after over a year of conversations about rights & royalties: the Pink Singers album that I was project lead on is now available via streaming services like Spotify, Deezer etc.

For the choir, this initiative was mostly to help new people discover the group, as we don’t expect to make any money from it. On a personal level, I learned a bit from this work about how to release music in the age of streaming, about the differences between mechanical and performance rights, and about contracts with session musicians. And that patience works in the end.

My favourite songs on the album are our cover of Both Sides Now by Joni Mitchell (arranged by Chris Chambers) and Running Up That Hill by Kate Bush (which I arranged). Both incredibly reflective songs – I hope we do them justice as a choir.

Weeknotes #1

Weeknotes

I’ve been doing weeknotes for myself for a couple of years now – for me, because reflection is the best way to learn and adapt. I also suggest to many of my clients that they try them out.

So, I’m experimenting with going public to practice what I preach. Let’s see how we go.

Work

A relatively busy one this week with a series of coaching sessions (and the consequent write-ups, research and reflections); running the second in a series of innovation workshops with client Mozart; and dealing with a couple of new leads for Triple Sharp coming in – some via some very long-lost colleagues.

Another blast from the past: Little Printer being resurrected by Nord projects. This news stirred up all kinds of memories from working on this back in 2011-12 at BERG: the talent, culture, tenacity and yes, stress, involved in rapidly developing a physical product and its ecosystem. I learned so much working on Little Printer about supply chain, logistics, the challenges of designing physical products, about finance and pricing and much more besides. The whole project provided concrete experience on which to reflect whilst studying for my MBA that really helped cement my learning.

(incidentally BERG was the first place I made public weeknotes too – one of the many things I learned from the mighty Matt, Matt, Jack, Nick, Denise & the crew)

Study

Having finished the final residential school of my MBA, I have two assignments remaining – the final-level bosses – so the end is in sight. My next tasks are assembling a set of critical friends for my final project and iteratively designing my research. Unhelpfully I have started browsing other degrees I might start next. Perhaps I should focus on finishing this one first.

The non-work

We also had Harry, Anya and Mike to stay and I enjoyed peeking into their lives and labours. I caught up with Matt for a natter and to hear the latest news from FutureLearn, where a new investor has just been announced, valuing the organisation at £100m. Not bad for a company that started with about 9 of us in a windowless basement getting high on whiteboard pen whiff.

On Friday night I caught Kings Cross Remix, a performance by Tom Marshman at the Camden Peoples Theatre. It was a really immersing show evoking queer Kings Cross in the 1980s and 90s, culminating in a boogie to 80s tunes with fellow theatre-goers evoking the atmosphere of The Bell.

No more tears?

Other stuff this week: I added band parts to the disco anthem I’ve arranged for the upcoming Pink Singers concert. I also purchased, assembled and filled a VegTrug for our little balcony to grow some salad / all our food for the impending political meltdown. It’s expensive for some bits of wood, but I’m not handy that way and it was easy enough to put together. I’m looking forward to learning how to grow a bunch of different stuff. I’m finding gardening to be a very soothing break from all the political turmoil of the world (predictable late-30s statement).

Also managed to watch some of Special (jury’s still out) and Years and Years (extremely bad for my blood pressure).

Five reflections on beginning the Open University MBA

Study

In this post, I try to summarise five reflections on the experience of joining and starting the Open University’s part-time MBA programme.

It’s exciting and privileging to undertake study as an adult

I realised quite early on how lucky I was to be able to do this: I had the financial support, the support and the guts to sign up and give it a go.

Household spending (Source: ONS)

So many are not in this position: the average family expenditure on education was just £6/week in 2015/16 according to the ONS, down from £16/week in 2001/02. The underlying causes for this are varied but possible explanations lie in the drop in disposable income (and that education is seen as discretionary spending) and the government’s decision to increase tuition fees including for postgraduates in 2012.

Undertaking postgraduate study means learning to learn again

Oh the envy I have of Johnny Five

Reading vast quantities of academic material doesn’t come easy – it takes practice. Similarly, writing concisely, with a clear argument and well-referenced sources was a skill that had entirely escaped me in the eleven years since finishing my first degree (Music and Sound Recording at University of Surrey).

I had to go back and find my final-year dissertation from 2005 to prove that it was something I was once capable of doing. And to start with, words would swim about on the page in front of my eyes. Luckily the Open University has loads of advice on how to study, full of tips from real learners from all kinds of backgrounds, which are reassuring even if you’ve never done it before.

That said, things start quickly and the barrage of acronyms comes thick and fast. B716 (the module code), TGF (tutor group forum), TMA (tutor-marked assessment) and so on – it all feels like an alien language and quite daunting to a returning learner.

Learning at distance is lonely

Photo by Chris Jadoul

Perhaps the hardest element of learning part time at distance is the loneliness.

The Open University provides a number of online forums.

There is a large forum in which it’s possible to converse with all learners embarking on the module (I understand each intake for the Open University is around 300 students from across the world),

In addition, there is a Tutor Group Forum (TGF) which in my case consisted of sixteen learners all based in the London area. Our tutor encouraged us to introduce ourselves and get to know each other, but this felt rather formal and arms-length – I didn’t feel able to share some of the feelings I was having about getting started just yet. I craved a more informal situation – the virtual equivalent of grabbing a coffee after a lecture – and the TGF didn’t provide it.

It’s hard to know what’s expected of you at the outset

The module guide suggests that studying part-time on the course would take around 10-15 hours per week. But who can really say? Everyone reads at different paces; sometimes your brain is functioning, but if you have to squeeze a two-hour study session in after a punishing day at the office, progress can be slow.

I found it hard to keep up with the materials at the time that the Open University suggested I did – sometimes getting ahead when I could, sometimes falling a number of weeks behind. This has really helped give me insight into how learners might progress through FutureLearn courses too – at FutureLearn we have tried with the learning design to keep each step of material – each piece of learning – to around 5-6 minutes or less, such that you could get your phone out on the bus and learn. With the Open University a piece of learning could vary between 15 minutes and four hours, making it quite hard to plan.

The materials the Open University provides, and its learning design, are excellent

The final reflection in this post is this: whilst getting started on the course was not all plain sailing by any means, the quality of the written materials and the learning design are, in my opinion, excellent. The materials are interesting, relevant and consistently invite personal reflection. For example, even in early module materials discussing power and politics int he workplace, regular prompts to think of examples in our own workplaces really helped bring the abstract concepts to life.

Some final thoughts for how starting the degree could have been improved

Bearing in mind all of the above, and also reflecting on four years experience of developing a best-in-class learning platform has led me to a few reflections for the Open University.

  • How can they make the registration process as streamlined and as reassuring as possible?
  • Is there a way to tailor the experience a bit for those who are familiar with studying, and provide better inline guidance for those who haven’t / need a refresher?
  • How can the feeling of community be strengthened during those critical first couple of weeks?